Demand Grows to Link Neuroscience with Education

By: Linda Jacobson

As public fascination with brain research has grown in recent years, scientists have often warned educators and others who work with children against drawing sweeping conclusions based on the latest findings of neuroscience.

The field of brain science, they say, is still too young to have much impact on practices used in the classroom.

Despite these caveats, however, many experts have begun sensing a growing need to translate basic neuroscientific findings into a digestible form for those who are looking for guidance, such as parents and educators. Others are looking to restore some balance to what they see as misinterpretations and gross generalizations of the research that have been spread by some advocates and politicians.

In particular, scientists have expressed concern about all the attention lavished on the topic of brain growth during the first three years of life, despite a growing number of studies showing that the brain continues to develop in critical ways throughout the childhood years.

"I don't think that it's helpful to say we don't know anything. It's time to step back and say, 'What do we really know? What are the implications for training, for delivering services?'" said Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff, the dean of the Heller Graduate School at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

Panel formed

Dr. Shonkoff, who has a background in pediatrics, is also the chairman of a National Research Council panel that is examining the current research on how young children develop.

Called the Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development, the 17-member group is in the final stages of writing a report that will be released later this year.

The goals of the panel, which has been working for about a year and a half, are to bring together experts from a variety of fields, such as psychology, education, and neuroscience, and to look at children's development "across these domains," Dr. Shonkoff said.

A formal report will be released first, but it's likely that the group will also prepare a popular version–almost a "consumer's guide to neuroscience," Dr. Shonkoff said.

Meanwhile, another group of scientists is doing similar work. Supported by the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the St. Louis-based James S. McDonnell Foundation, the group met here recently to update one another on their research and to discuss new directions for the network. Among the topics discussed was the possibility of creating a formal link between the foundation-sponsored group and the NRC panel in an effort to provide ongoing information to the public about advancements in brain research.

Interdisciplinary approach

Many researchers note that one significant accomplishment of these efforts is simply the fact that scientists from different fields are beginning to address these questions together.

The work of the members of the Research Network on Early Experience and Brain Development–the group funded by the MacArthur and McDonnell foundations–is eclectic. Projects range from studies on the behavior of Rhesus monkeys separated from their mothers at different ages to looking at outcomes for Romanian children placed in foster care and comparing them with children who remain in orphanages.

But at the March 2-4 meeting of the network in Chicago, it was clear that the researchers in attendance were interested in finding connections between their own work and that of other participants. For example, a presentation from a developmental psychologist about positive social interactions between mothers and babies led to a discussion about which circuits of the brain might be involved in such activities.

Building bridges between neuroscience and the classroom is also beginning to take place in higher education. The Mind, Brain, and Education program at Harvard University's graduate school of education began last fall in an effort to train those who want to use neuroscience and cognitive science to improve teaching and to target students' needs more accurately.

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a doctoral candidate at Harvard, is a former 7th grade science teacher who also taught high school French. She's interested in learning more about what occurs in the brain as children listen to and learn to use language.

"We teach our kids by talking to them and kids learn about things by vocabulary," she said. But she added that often what teachers "think they are conveying may not be what the kid is getting."

Interactions increasing

Efforts to bring neuroscientists and educators together for face-to-face conversations are also increasing. Public Information Resources –a Boston-based company that organizes conferences for educators–has held two meetings on brain research. Topics covered include emotions, memory, and violence. A third conference, to be held at the end of April, is expected to draw more than 1,500 teachers, administrators, school psychologists, and other professionals.

"The educators get a greater understanding of what we are learning about the brain, and the neuroscientists think about what educators really want to know," said Kelly Williams, the vice president of the company.

Stanley W. DeJarnett, an assistant superintendent with the 2,950-student Morgan County public schools in Georgia, took 18 people–mostly teachers–to one of the conferences last year. He said he was interested because he doesn't think the company has "tried to trivialize this and make connections that aren't there."

Based on the presentations they heard, the district's four schools have been trying to improve the learning environment by reducing classroom interruptions, for example, and by increasing students' involvement in planning their assignments. As a result, teachers–some of whom will return to the conference next month to make their own presentation–have reported that students are completing their homework more often and showing greater interest in subjects outside the classroom.

While Mr. DeJarnett said he thinks he and his colleagues are getting "smarter about why good teaching has a profound effect on kids," he said he has been careful not to refer to the district's new focus as a "brain based" approach because he thinks that term is being overused.

Perhaps the best-known example of policymakers trying to put research into practice was former Georgia Gov. Zell Miller's initiative to give every new mother in the state a classical music tape to play for her baby in an effort to enhance the child's intelligence.

"If that's the worst thing that happened, that's not so bad," said Judy Bray, a state services coordinator at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

Despite concerns that neuroscience was being used out of context, she said, all the recent attention devoted to the early years has not, for the most part, resulted in new educational initiatives specifically tied to brain research.

For more than two years, beginning in 1997, the ECS coordinated a series of workshops about the brain in about 35 states that brought scientists together with top-level state officials, educators, and others who run programs for children.

"People are realizing how complicated it is," Ms. Bray said, adding that the discussions have created more awareness about young children and stronger connections between the K-12 system and early-childhood education. "Teachers are delighted for anything that makes the kids who come to them better prepared."

Vol. 19, number 28, page 5 - © 2000 Editorial Projects in Education

Education Week - American Education's Newspaper of Record - March 22, 2000